One of the girls is named Betty. She could pass for a teenager, but she’s actually 28 years old and has five children.

One of the girls is named Ramula. We call her Lumla, and she is so shy that if you look at her and smile, she just giggles and turns away.

Shamira is beautiful, truly beautiful. But she is timid, insecure, and self-conscious, because throughout her life, the people closest to her kept telling her how ugly she was. Sadly, but understandably, she believed them.

Gloria was given away by her family to be married at the age of 11. Her husband was a man who was her grandfather’s age. Of all the girls we spent time with on this particular day, Gloria was the only one who did not have children. She gave birth once, by Cesarean section, under heavy anesthesia. When she woke up, she was told her baby had died. When she asked to see the body, she was refused.

It was not uncommon for babies to be stolen and sold, and Gloria’s pain was twofold. Not only was her baby taken from her, but she never healed properly from her C-section. Because of this – and a few other reasons – she has found it difficult to work, and can barely pay her bills. She worries about her future. The other girls worry about her, too. One of them said, “Even if you can’t help all of us, please help Gloria.”

Betty, Lumla, Shamira, and Gloria are four of the eleven girls that my friend Tabitha and I – along with several others – met with recently at a church in Uganda that opened its arms and its doors to us. The eleven were just a few of the many young women from Ki-Mombasa, a slum not far from Uganda’s capital city of Kampala. I met some of the girls during my first trip to Uganda two years ago, and saw them again when I was there last year.

This was the first time, however, that we were able to talk with any of them in a location outside of Ki-Mombasa, where some of them live and where all of them earn a living – if you can call it that – by selling their bodies to men who pay them in amounts equivalent to thirty or forty cents. And who sometimes beat them, cut them, and infect them with the kind of diseases that are both painful and deadly.

It was the first time we were able to talk at length with the girls about their lives, their families, and the plans and dreams they had as children. It was the first time they were able to talk freely, and to feel safe, respected, and listened to.

One of the things we were surprised to learn was that many of the girls were first brought to Ki-Mombasa by a friend. Some of them had been promised jobs as maids, housekeepers, or cooks. Either the jobs proved to be nonexistent, or they disappeared before long. Or the pay was nowhere near enough to live on and amounted to, quite literally, slave wages.

What wasn’t surprising was to learn that most of the girls had little or no education, and that many had been married, but had been abused or abandoned by their husbands. All of the girls were ashamed of the work they were doing, and would give anything to get out of Ki-Mombasa. They were concerned more for their children than for themselves, and until now have had no reason or occasion to hope for a better life.

When Tabitha and I first met the girls – most of whom are in their 20s and early 30s – they immediately captured our hearts and our maternal instincts. Tabitha is now “Mummy” to all of them, and I’m honored and delighted to be known as Auntie Betty.

Our “family” has grown immensely since then. A number of other people are as committed as we are to building a Miracle Village where the girls and their children can receive an education, medical care, and counseling. Where they can get spiritual guidance, and training for jobs that make them proud, not ashamed, of the work they do.

More than anything else, that is what we want to provide for the girls now living and working in Ki-Mombasa. We hope that Betty, Lumla, Shamira, and Gloria – as well as all the others – will be able to escape the chains of poverty and prostitution that now hold them prisoner. And we hope that as they heal from all the wounds and indignities that have been inflicted on them, and as they grow in strength, skill, and confidence, they will become shining and inspiring examples to others of all that is possible when a few people take the time to show they care.

The column “Find Your Buried Treasure” appears weekly in the Chanhassen (MN) Villager. This column was published on August 22, 2013.
©Betty Liedtke, 2013

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