Setting the Stage: Being Friends with Abitimo Odongkara

This is the story of being faithful in following the threads of friendship. 25 years ago my husband Chuck made a new friend. Her name was Abitimo Odongkara, and they met at an early childhood workshop. She was from Uganda, but her family had fled the dictator Idi Amin, and they were living as refugees in Philadelphia. Her children started coming to the play groups Chuck ran, and I got to know them too. I loved her warmth and the light in her eyes. I was very happy to become her friend.

We got to know more of her story. Abitimo had started out with the idea of revenge; Idi Amin had killed a lot of people and she wanted to kill him. But she discovered that planning revenge didn’t make her happy, and gradually she got the idea of building for peace by working with the children.

Some years after Idi Amin’s dictatorship fell, she went back to Uganda, looking for a place to make a difference. There was still unrest in the country. Groups of ex-army soldiers were roaming around, and a civil war was brewing in the north where she lived. One day she saw a group of orphans alone and unattended, amusing themselves by playing war games. Right then and there she decided to take those orphans in, and start a school where they could learn something other than war.

Abitimo’s children stayed in Philadelphia and she came back every year. Chuck taught her peer counseling, introduced her to our friends and continued to hang out with the children as they grew into adults. I became her editor-in-chief—polishing her fundraising letters and creating little brochures about the school, which is called UNFAT. I remember the first pictures we used—of a little class standing in front of a round hut made of home-made bricks with a pointy thatched roof of grass. Just playing that little role made me feel a sense of connection. In a small way her work got to be our work too.

The years passed. Abitimo’s school grew. A new grade was added every year. The civil war also got worse. For a while the school met in the railroad station, which had been abandoned because of the war. I never saw pictures of that place. Then they got land of their own, and the pictures I used in the brochures were of rectangular brick classroom blocks with holes for doors and windows. There were more and more war orphans. The fundraising letters I edited spoke of hoping to provide a meal in the middle of the day so the children wouldn’t be so hungry. It was hard, holding a situation of such heartbreak and need in our hearts, trying to be good friends and doing so little. But it looked like that’s the role we could play—and it least it was not nothing.

Then in 2005 I read a piece in the paper by a member of the Inquirer’s op-ed board, calling for people to get involved in stopping Joseph Kony, the rebel leader in the north. It was a revelation. I didn’t know that anybody in the whole United States besides me or Chuck had ever heard of Joseph Kony. Maybe we were not so alone. I wrote a note to this reporter, whose name is Caroline, asking if she’d like to meet a Ugandan family in Philadelphia with ties to the north. Abitimo was back in Uganda, but we had stayed friends with her children Aaron and Patrick. Caroline did want to meet them—and I think the five minutes I spent writing that little note might have been the most important five minutes of my life. Caroline ended up going to Northern Uganda for a month, and doing a five-day feature in the paper, including a big spread on Abitimo and her school.

All of a sudden there were lots of people in Philadelphia feeling a connection with Uganda, wanting to do something. This new energy caught me off balance. I’d gotten so used to feeling like we were in this alone. It made me wonder if we’d been holding this friendship too close. Could we have shared more, sooner? Or was it just that way had opened?

But here we were. A group of us got together with Abitimo and her family and we started a new organization—Friends of UNIFAT. Caroline’s husband joined, and another refugee from Uganda. One couple, Mike and Jill Zimmer, who had gotten involved through the articles in the paper, turned out to be amazing fundraisers. A whole network of Catholic schools in Cincinnati got involved, through Mike’s connection with his high-school alma mater. Chuck and I, who are so used to being the ones to make things happen, now found ourselves panting to keep up, trying to build the infrastructure of the group fast enough to harness all this new energy. Money was coming in. New classrooms were going up. Scholarships for orphans were being raised.

For years Abitimo had been asking us to visit, but we kept putting it off. The idea of traveling to an active civil war zone sent little chills up my spine. Hearing that you could find out, once you got to the capital city, whether or not the road to the north was safe, did not reassure me. Surely we could be more useful safely at home. Looking back, it’s hard to know if this was lack of faithfulness or just good sense.

But now, 2005, there were peace talks underway. Nobody was being shot. The thousands of children who had been walking hours every evening to sleep in Gulu town to escape the danger of nighttime abductions by the rebel army were now sleeping safely at home. We made our plans. Chuck found the three emptiest weeks in his calendar. I worked extra hours for the airfare and saved up vacation days. We decided to travel with Abitimo’s son Patrick, now grown, and his wife and three children, and our twenty-five year old son Timothy.

We didn’t know what to expect, what would be possible. Could we help her identify new leaders for the school, prioritize fundraising goals, do workshops for the teachers in early childhood education? Could we teach peer counseling, do something to strengthen the work of trauma healing in the region? Could we make a video to use as an educational tool back home? It was like packing a tool box with every tool we could think of, not knowing which ones would turn out to be useful, or how way would open. We just knew it was time to go.

The preparation was a nightmare—trying to wade through conflicting information about immunizations, visas, currency exchange, fundraising procedures and deadlines, trying to do it all as a group, finding substitutes, rushing to complete all the work that would normally be done when we were away. Then it was a grueling trip—two nights on airplanes, then almost a whole bone-jarring day in a little bus over incredibly pot-holed and bumpy roads. Patrick’s wife Irene had not made it on the plane at all, held up at the airport with passport complications. I asked myself many times why we were doing this. It would have been so much simpler to stay at home.

But when we saw Abitimo’s smiling face at the end of the journey in Gulu, I was reminded of why. It was because we were friends.

The next day when we were welcomed by thirty students and young adults, eager to learn peer counseling, ready to invite us into their hearts, I knew that we were going to be of use. We were able to do many things. We offered this group and another group of young women, all facing grievous loss because of the war, ways to bring healing attention to each other and others. We got all the footage, interviews and sound for a video. We clarified financial procedures and funding priorities at the school and helped Abitimo identify promising new leaders. We learned of the needs of the youngest classes, worked in the library, and offered a few resources to those teachers. We actually ended up using almost all the tools in our toolbox—and we accumulated a long list of more things we could do when we got home.

But most of all we were friends. We were good friends to Abitimo, just by visiting, staying in her house, seeing, understanding and joining in to her life. We became friends with others in her family and with people at the school. We developed deep friendships with the young people—young men who had been taken for child soldiers, young women who had been abducted and were raising the children of rape, young people who had lost parents, siblings, young nieces and nephews. We listened to their stories, we told our own, we offered them the discipline of listening deeply, with warmth and confidence in the other’s goodness. They came back with stories of listening to others and lightening their loads, making a difference. We played games and laughed together. We hugged a lot.

So my story, which started with a single strand, a friendship with one woman, has grown to be a strong web of many strands. It has been joined by our friends and by Abitimo’s family, both in Uganda and here at home. There are the folks in Philadelphia like Mike and Jill Zimmer, who read the paper and were moved to action. There are high school students in Ohio whom I’ve never met, but are eager to have lives of meaning. There are teachers at UNIFAT school who feel joined in their struggle. There are young men and women of northern Uganda, already eager and loving, who now have more strength in numbers and more tools in their own toolbox as they go out to help heal their land.

It’s not easy, this work of being friends. But in a way it’s very simple.

Night Watch in Gulu

On the first two nights sleeping in Abitimo’s home the fan kept us cool enough, but the electricity has gone out, and I lie here sweating. I’ve known hotter nights at home, but there I have a big breezy corner room and a fan, and if it’s really bad, I can always find relief in a cold shower. Here, wedged in against the wall, to go anywhere I’d have to feel my way over my husband, under the mosquito net, then over my son who’s taking up the rest of the space on the floor of this tiny room. In this strange house in total darkness, the bathroom seems an impossible goal.

I’m happy to be out of the hotel, happy to be crammed into Abitimo’s house as part of her extended family. What a privilege it has been these last two days to meet with a group of young people who are eager to learn peer counseling, eager to play a role in healing their region from over twenty years of devastating civil war. What an incredible set of circumstances that has me, on my second day in this African country far from home, sitting in the late afternoon shade among ten or twelve groups of three, each listening intently as the others tell their life stories. One young man in my group touches my heart as he speaks shyly of past troubles. I find out later that many of these young people are orphans, most have lost loved ones to the war, and some had been abducted to be child soldiers.

It’s so still. I can hear the sound of distant drumming. I wonder if there’s been drumming on other nights, drowned out by the fan. I think of how the fan serves as a buffer to other noise, just as our distance and affluence buffers us from the lives of so many others. It’s good to be able to hear. I wonder if this is just somebody’s music, or if these drums are sending a message that is being received and understood.

There are atrocity stories here, but I don’t have any to tell. Those are all other people’s stories—stories of those who suffered and survived, of those who have to live with the unspeakable things they have done. There is an urgency about the trade of these stories. I understand the urge to tell them—to try to shatter complacency, shock people out of lethargy, spark outrage, make something happen. There is also the urge to hear—a fascination with horror, a compulsion to confirm our despair, or stoke the fires of inner guilt. But knowing the worst doesn’t make anything better. We need to have our own stories.

The sound of a vehicle startles me. There is hardly ever a vehicle on this road, and it’s the middle of the night. It stops very close to our compound. A series of scary possibilities race through my mind. But nothing happens. Again I’m alone in the night. I try to relax, discover that if I press up all the way against the wall I can feel a little coolness from the concrete.

My own story is a story of friendship with Abitimo, of loving her goodness and courage and vision, of following that thread of friendship, of one thing leading to another. I also have a story of meeting eager and open-faced young people, so ready to do their part to heal their beloved Acholi land, which has been caught for so long between a brutal rebel force and a national army eager to crush a troublesome ethnic group. They carry so much responsibility on their shoulders, so much love in their hearts. I get to tell a story full of hope.

A cell phone rings in the bedroom next door. Abitimo’s son Patrick and his three children have traveled here with us from Philadelphia; his wife Irene was held up at the airport with passport troubles and missed the flight. Days later she’s finally close to boarding, panicked that something still might go wrong, heedless of the hour in Uganda. His voice is steady, reassuring. It’s not been easy for him either, not having her here. His shoulders are broad—they’ve had to bear a lot. I’m grateful for his presence. Abitimo was the beacon for us, but he provided the bridge that made this trip seem possible.

I’m still awake. I don’t know why. I wonder if I will sleep at all tonight. I think of all that the people here have endured, and one sleepless night on my part doesn’t begin to compare. As I think about it, it’s a ridiculously small price to pay for the access I’ve been given to the heart of this community, for the opportunity to stand with this people, for the chance to be of use.

I hear Abitimo coughing, then the sound of drowsy contented talk—the two grandchildren who sleep in her bed. The murmurs die down, and all is still again. A cock crows. And finally I sleep.