This is the kind of headline that floats past us by the dozens every day. Far off lands, clashes and conflicts deeply emotional and historical, and so local and distant from our North American experience that it all blurs.
But this one is “our king,” taking place on the same road that the Nikibasika house is on. We know this King. His name is Charles. He lives about 600 metres from the project. We have been inside the “royal palace,” which is just a medium sized house with a big compound, and a few traditional, sacred, guarded huts. Several years ago, Derrick took us there, and we first peeked through the fence, and got shooed away by his guards. We went to meet with him a few years ago, sat in his overstuffed furniture in his tiny living room while he sat in a lazyboy. His kids have played football with our kids. (We knew it was them in the compound because they had the best cleats and socks). He grew up in New York, his father in exile, and came back a few years ago. It wasn’t exactly clear why at the time, though many of the traditional kings have been a big force in developing their regions.
Two years ago I developed a grudging resentment of the King because he had taken to having traditional drumming every morning at 6 am, an extremely loud racket designed to wake up all the people. As Innocent (and Monty Python) said, “he’s not MY king!” and I didn’t want to be awakened. (“It’s not the homophobia, or the heat, or the bugs that are going to drive me out of the country!” I said that year, exasperated — “but the fucking constant NOISE!”) Ruth, the woman who cleans our hotel agreed — “it is the king, we do not like it.”
So the headline, with the six dead soldiers and guards, isn’t about some Random African King. This is a pause, a zoom in. This is Charles, from our road.
We’ve been connected with this project since 2006, and my first trip to Uganda was in 2008. This year will be my 9th visit. I know what to expect. And we know how to do some of the things about running this project, have terrific relationships with the Director and Associate Director on the ground. Over the near-decade, we’ve figured out how to raise $150,000 year for the project, how to create a community that cares about this group of kids that have no parental support. How to structure a program that focuses on older youth and helping them prepare to be community leaders, self-sustaining, globally aware. We’ve figured out how to run an NGO in a country we don’t live in, how to apply for and become a formal charity in two countries. How to generate accountability for spending in a country that is corrupt at worst and throws up constant new layers of expensive admin at best. How to explain our model to locals who want to kick all of our kids out and put new ones in because ours look healthy now. How to fire people who aren’t doing their jobs, and how to interpret seemingly random, sometimes dramatic bits of information. How to manage very slippery truths. How to run a project that requires hands on action every few days of our lives as volunteers. How to create stability out of trauma and neglect. How to form deeply caring relationships with people we see for intensive bursts once a year, and connect with sporadically via text or messenger the rest of the time. How to weather homophobic laws, and complex logistics, and children with mental health issues whose families want to “smoke them” with witchcraft to cure them. How to keep showing up. How to quasi-parent across distance and cultural difference. How to love across distance and time.
Niki is an utterly impossible, unlikely project, a thing that a small stubborn group of us have managed to keep doing for nearly a decade, figuring things out as we go along, driven by the power of connection across distance, the power of human love, and seeing the potential in the smiles and hopes and anxious fears of every one of these resilient beings. Believing somewhere, stubbornly, that in the chaos of complexity, what we are doing to equip this group of 50 or so people with skills and knowledge and a community full of love makes some kind of difference to their capacity to influence their world, to lead fuller lives.
And this year, there was a contested election in February. I asked Tina, our associate director, whom I text with most days, how they felt about it. “Of course it feels terrible to know your wishes don’t count,” she texted back. “But we can pray for something different.” And now, there is the king.
I have a photo of us meeting Charles somewhere, but I can’t find it. It seemed like a lark, meeting the king, telling him we wouldn’t give him money for his hike up Mt Margarita. We thought it was sort of funny, this king with the lazyboy, very friendly with perfect English, of course, given his upbringing. And, Charles apparently came back to Uganda with a mission — to carve out the traditional lands now in Uganda and Congo and break away from those countries. (There are minerals here, not well mined). And now it’s not a lark — he’s militarized a lot of his people, and they are attacking police stations and seizing guns, and fighting with the Bamba, a different cultural group nearby. There was a test skirmish last year where 90 people were killed. Now the royal guards are in active conflict with the police, and Musevani has deployed hundreds of soldiers to the region. I was texting Tina the other day and she had to go because she heard gunshots.
I don’t know what Charles is thinking, or what on earth would propel someone to leave his life as a lawyer in New York to go and foster dissent and violence among people with nothing, people who can be convinced that they are protected from bullets by witchcraft. I do know that about a third of the kids in Nikibasika are there because of the breaking apart of families and support systems after the Rwandan genocide. At least two of them were born DURING those 100 days, in refugee camps and on roadsides. They are the next generation, with different skills and sightlines and university degrees.
Most of the kids aren’t in Kasese right now — they all go to boarding school after the equivalent of grade 7. The kids are safe, and when we go in May, we’ll gather them in Kampala, not in Kasese, and send them to their home villages for the holidays. Gabriel, our director, is heavily involved with the meetings among community leaders to try to stop the conflict.
So everyone is technically fine… but this is just one of those deep breath moments, a huge reminder that we can’t predict what happens anywhere… and that whatever shifts, we have to adapt. This makes our work so much more complicated — and it underlines all over why it’s important. Can supporting youth teams to run their own community projects, or supporting Angela Brown to be a plumber, Nicholas to be a welder, Robinah to have sewing skills, Saphra to be a community organizer, Smith to be a doctor, Britah to become a human rights lawyer — can these things change what happens? I don’t know. Maybe not. But nothing is going to change in this land if the youth aren’t educated, equipped with different ways to do conflict, a different vision for what’s possible.
I asked Britah last year in one of our one-on-ones what she most wanted for her life. “Peace in my country,” she said, in her soft, confident voice. “You inspire me,” she told me. “You inspire ME,” I said.