In March, just as Covid closed borders and grounded the entire world to a screeching halt, I was made aware that one of the PHH team members misused funds. Unable to return to Uganda to handle the situation in person and directly, I was forced to use the clumsy mediums of emails and phone calls. I knew I first had to consult with our fearless leader, Mama Oyet, for both a first-hand account of the situation and advice. But to complicate the situation further, Mama Oyet suffers from congestive heart failure and had been extremely weak for more than two months, most likely a combination of her illness and the emotional toll wreaked on her by the recent murder of her son. So, I waited. And waited. Two months passed and Mama Oyet began to regain her strength. I made the call.
First, I spoke with Mama Oyet to hear her voice and gauge her strength and state of mind. Although weak, her voice was sure and that hint of a laugh made me smile. In her ever-comforting way, she answered my unspoken question, “Don’t worry. I’ll be fine.” Those words she’d offered innumerous times over the fifteen years I’d known her, and the countless challenges and sicknesses she endured.
I would often wonder to whose benefit were those words, “Don’t worry. I’ll be fine.” Was she assuring me that she would not leave me to forge ahead alone? The glue that holds together, not just Project Have Hope, but the entire Acholi Quarter community. The reliable presence that cares for the children, her own and others. The one that makes sure there is food for everyone present. The one that nurtures through her motherly, yet kindly demeanor. The one whose wisdom extends beyond the books that could fill a library, who makes everyone feel welcome and loved and worthwhile. The one who has the people skills to diffuse a hostage stand-off and has that uncanny, sought after, rare ability to know just how to communicate with everyone – from a small child, to a local leader, to a high-ranking politician, to a poverty-stricken villager, to an outsider from another country.
So, her words, “Don’t worry, I’ll be fine,” is an assurance to me, I suppose, that she’s not going to make me fend alone in this sad, scary world. That she’ll be there to guide me. Just as she says those words to her children at those times when she’s so sick, we think she cannot survive, she assures us of her immortality. We all know it can’t last forever. But not one of us ever wants to consider the time when we will be without her inherent wisdom and depthless heart. When she says those words to me, I invariably feel like a small child. Like the ship that would be lost at sea without her as my compass. And I don’t mind it. I don’t mind knowing that she is my leader, my resource, the one, much like a mother, who I go to and depend on for guidance.
Perhaps, of course, the words, “Don’t worry, I’ll be fine,” are a verbal proclamation to herself. I am strong. I can withstand the storm. I still have more to live and more to give. Or in my more Americanized way, “I’m a badass and I’m not going anywhere. Just wait and see.”
To whoever these words are intended to benefit, it soothes me to hear her speak them. I press on with the purpose of my call. “Did ______ take the loan money?”