They are beautiful young women. Girls, actually, with many of them between the ages of 18 and 25, and some even younger. They have sweet, shy smiles, but very little to smile about. They live and work in the slums near Kampala, and the way they earn their money is the only way they can.
They don’t get much for their efforts. A few thousand Ugandan shillings, which equals less than a dollar in U.S. currency. Sometimes they don’t get paid at all, as when the police come by looking for bribes and demanding free sex in exchange for not arresting them. On the days they don’t earn money, they don’t eat. Neither do their children.
Many of the girls end up here because their husbands or boyfriends died or ran out on them, leaving them without any means of support. Some have been raped, and infected with HIV. Most of them would rather be anywhere else in the world, doing anything else in the world, than this.
The area is known as Ki-Mombasa, and is home to several hundred women and young children who are living a life that no one on earth should have to live. And if my friend Tabitha has her way, they won’t have to for very much longer.
Tabitha is a powerful force of nature who – in the year and a half that I’ve known her – has been moving mountains with her faith, her determination, her compassion, her vision for a better world, and an extraordinary amount of work. It’s because of Tabitha that almost 2,000 church, community, family, student, and government leaders in Uganda were recently trained to “Lead Like Jesus,” and it’s because of Tabitha that I was part of the team working in Uganda – not only with the LLJ Encounters, but in presenting a series of workshops about believing in your dreams and being fearless in pursuing them. Which, by the way, pretty much describes my going to Uganda in the first place.
Before I returned to the States, Tabitha and I visited some of the girls in Ki-Mombasa, to get input and information from them, and to share Tabitha’s dream with them. That dream is to transform Ki-Mombasa into a Miracle Village where the girls can get treatment and training, and transition to a life where they can be healthy and safe, and where they are able to feed, clothe, and educate their children by earning a living doing work they are proud of, instead of the work they do now.
The girls talked to us openly, but reluctantly. They were wary and skeptical – understandably so.
“People have come here before, and told us they were going to help us,” they said. “They take pictures of us, they write stories about us, but then nothing happens. They never come back. So they’re just using us, too.”
“This will be different,” I wanted to say to them, but I figured they had heard that from others, too.”
“You don’t know Tabitha,” I also felt like saying, but that wouldn’t have made any difference either. Because it was true – they didn’t know her. Words wouldn’t matter to them. Actions would.
And Tabitha has been in action non-stop since then. In just a few weeks, she’s found some suitable land to purchase, and a building that can be used as a transition facility until a more permanent place can be found or built. She’s already started registering the women and their children, and is researching and exploring different ways the girls can earn money, and different ways the village itself can generate income.
Before I left Uganda, I gave Tabitha the shillings I still had, instead of exchanging them back into U.S. dollars. It wasn’t much, but it was enough for her to go back to Ki-Mombasa and tell the girls they didn’t have to sell their bodies in order to feed themselves or their children that day. And it was enough to let them know that people do care about them, and want to help them create a better life for themselves and their families.
A number of people have expressed an interest in helping Tabitha transform the Ki-Mombasa slum into the Miracle Village that both she and I envision – a community of hope and healing, where young women can regain their dignity and confidence and become proud and productive role models for their children.
One of them is Mary Ann Halpin, the Hollywood photographer whose talent and vision have launched a series of Fearless Women books. Her new book, which Tabitha is in and which will be out next spring, is inspiring a series of events throughout 2012 (including one in Minneapolis) that will help to raise the funds needed for this transformation to take place. You can see a photo of what Ki-Mombasa looks like now, read more about Tabitha’s story, see a video about Mary Ann’s “60 for 60” campaign, or make a donation that will help fund the efforts to transform Ki-Mombasa, at http://bit.ly/s3XoVa.
It’s been said that it takes a village to raise a child. I would add that it can take a miracle to raise a village. I feel like I’m in the middle of a miracle right now, and there’s no doubt in my mind that if enough people care and believe in it, we’ll see this miracle occur. And that will finally give the young women in Ki-Mombasa a reason to smile.
The column “Find Your Buried Treasure” appears weekly in the Chanhassen (MN) Villager. This column was published on November 17, 2011.
© Betty Liedtke, 2011