Martina is 12 years old and she has epilepsy. She wears an emerald green dress, and somehow this child seems to radiate light. She is painfully shy and her cheeks blush crimson as I speak to her. “Yes,” she nods voicelessly, as I ask her simple questions. And when I move to something that requires a true reply, she looks up at me with a bright smile and dancing eyes, still silent, but answering me with a look. “Things are better now.”
For several years Martina went to school, always uncertain what the day would bring. Sometimes she would have epileptic fits, convulsing in the middle of class, or in the schoolyard in front of her peers. As her body shook, Martina’s classmates would run after her, hitting her and beating her with sticks so hard that her young body often bruised. They did this for fun and play, but also to chase the evil spirit out of her that they believed lived inside. Teachers stood back. On-looking adults did nothing. Martina said that she did her best not to cry.
Identified by TPO Uganda as at-risk, last year Martina received a goat. (If you don’t yet know about the Goat Project, please read about it HERE or HERE). TPO considers the Goat Project to be a child-protection program, and I quickly learned again why.
It wasn’t long after the goat was delivered to Martina, during a follow up visit, that the TPO counselor learned about the specific, dangerous trouble she was having at school. A team of TPO staff, together with someone from the sub-county’s child-protection committee went to visit the school. They spoke to all the school’s staff and explained Martina’s condition. They explained epilepsy medically, and the serious physical risks involved with the children’s habit of hitting Martina mid-attack, and then spoke of the emotional impact as well. They coached the school’s staff on how best to explain this to the students, and deal with questions or backlash.
And it worked. Martina goes to school now in peace. Her teachers, the students, as well as her family members all know how to help her during an attack. She says that some students still tease her, but that she doesn’t mind because everyone gets teased for something, and no one is hitting her any more. Not one single person. And then, her face lights up. “Do you want to see my goat?” she asks. It is my turn to nod. Yes, I definitely want to see her goat!
She leads me past the spacious living area, out into a field of corn and overgrowth. She leads the way, and I can scarcely see her emerald dress through the grasses that brush my forehead. And then she stops, turning to find me. “There” she points, without words, the luminescent grin returning. I look, and tethered to a tree with a long rope is a black and white speckled goat, munching happily on the greens. I didn’t know it was possible, but in a moment, Martina’s face lights up even more. She takes a few more steps and clears the way through some of the bush. There, hidden entirely in the growth, are two kids, little baby goats, bleating quietly. And I know what this means without being told: money for school fees. More goats, more babies, more money, more food, something that this child is bringing to her family, a way she is contributing to her own future. And she cannot hold the pride she feels inside. It spills out of her, into the wild grass where we stand.
What do you want to be when you grown up, I ask her spontaneously. She does not wait a moment before answering. “A nurse,” she says. “I want to help people get better and understand.”
I think that it is a fabulous plan.
(Thank you, sweet Leah, for changing Martina’s life last year with a gift of a goat. In this, as in so many other ways, you are here with us. Thank you from her, from her family, and from us. We love you.)
Photos of Martina and her goats to come once I am back home in the U.S.…