I spent 4 full days in Gulu before I saw Joyce. I wanted to go and meet her family together with Grace, her mentor, and Grace wasn’t available until Saturday. With so much aid and so many people in and out of their lives, it was important to me that Joyce and Carla, her stepmother, see Grace and I as a team and understand that we work together.
When Saturday finally came, I tried to keep my expectations low. Very low. Perhaps Joyce wouldn’t remember me. She is, as they say here, a very stubborn child, and she is four. Chances were high that she would hide behind Carla or not want to interact with me at all, be shy or a bit scared, or just stubborn. For this, I was prepared (or so I told myself). Also, I tried to remember, she could be sick or not doing well. Although I had been told otherwise, I am not sure I really believed it.
As Grace, her 4 year old daughter, Laura, and I approached the home, she filled me in on the details of Joyce’s life. Within moments though, I saw for myself. Joyce was outside playing with her friends when we arrived: boisterous, lively, jumping up and down and up and down and up. In an instant we were spotted and suddenly a mess of 3-6 year olds were tearing toward us at breakneck speed. Joyce went straight for Grace. Once in Grace’s arms she looked over at me. Her eyes got big and she smiled, then buried her face in Grace’s shoulder. Grace spoke to her for a minute and then put her down. “Who is this? Grace asked in English. “Aimee” Joyce said with a small smile. Shyly, she walked over, took my hand, and we walked to the house.
I had never met Carla before. When I was here last year, her Aunt Mary was caring for Joyce. Shortly after I left, Carla, Joyce’s father’s second wife, arrived and began to care for Joyce. For a short time the two women shared the responsibility, but eventually Joyce was left solely in Carla’s care. Mary went back to Pader, and Carla stayed in Gulu with Joyce, going to Pader every few weeks (with Joyce) to tend her garden there.
Instantly, I liked Carla. She greeted us with warmth and hospitality. She smiled. She swooped Joyce up into her arms and absent-mindedly cleaned the dust off he face. She spoke of Joyce with the pride and utter adoration of a mother, adding with feigned irritation that Joyce is, indeed, “a very stubborn child,” and then erupting in laughter. We sat for a long time visiting, Grace translating and chatting between us, Joyce staying close to Carla, moving to Grace, and eventually climbing up into my lap.
I noticed that the home was clean. Spotless, clean. Mattresses, clothes, and playthings hid behind a freshly hung, cheery curtain. Pots and a kettle were neatly placed in the corner. There was nary a mosquito to be seen. This was still the same one-room, concrete block, tin roofed place she had lived last year, half the size of most modest bedrooms in the US, and housing 6 people, but somehow for the first time, it seemed like a home.
Joyce was clean. The sore on her arm is still problematic, but was covered with a fresh bandage. Her ears were not oozing, her nose was not dripping. She had gotten taller, put on weight. Her eyes shined. Dare I say it? This beautiful child looked healthy.
I left with Grace to go run errands and pick up staples for the family. For the past year, we have been supporting (through Grace and Invisible Children), Joyce and her family in their most basic needs: food, rent, and of course Joyce’s schooling and medical needs. This has been fundamentally necessary in order to bring her and the family to a point of stability, from which they can move forward.
It has clearly worked. Carla will be taking a class on money management and business before starting her own small venture selling charcoal in the very near future. The family will then begin providing for their own basic needs, and we will continue to support Joyce’s education and medical needs.
As we moved about town picking up rice and beans, sugar and flour, I chatted more with Grace, and played with Laura. We returned to the home to quickly drop off the goods, and I asked Carla if I could return to visit during the week, without Grace. She smiled and nodded yes, of course. Then I turned to Joyce and asked Grace to ask her the same thing in Luo: could I come back during the week to visit and play? Would that be ok? Joyce paused for a moment, looking at Carla, Grace, and then me.