Kampala, Uganda. Flickr

Mercy in Acholi Quarter

Little Reagan, Frances, Jenny, Vicky… Acholi Quarter on the outskirts of Kampala, where for five years the Meeting Point has helped 156 AIDS patients. “The others do for them, we do with them.”
Rodolfo Casade

Acholi Quarter is a clot of shacks clinging to the precarious sides of the hill of Kireka, on the outskirts of Kampala, Uganda. Six hundred families, about 3,000 persons, are gathered together among walls made of mud, reeds, and cardboard topped by corrugated iron sheets or roofs of branches. Permanent buildings can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Some huts have floors of poured concrete, but many are simply packed earth. As the name indicates, the inhabitants are almost all Acholi, a troubled ethnic group from the north who have known no peace for fifteen years, and whose children seek some kind of safety at the gates of a capital city which does not love them. Here, over the past five years, Meeting Point has taken care of 156 AIDS patients and has paid the school fees–thanks to long-distance adoptions by Italians–of 111 children, almost all of them orphans or the children of sick parents.

Breaking Rocks
Acholi Quarter is the only one of Kampala’s fourteen slums that rises on a hill slope rather than sitting in one of the valleys, which are shunned by regular settlements because they are infested by garbage dumps and by the run-off of a city devoid of sewers. The fact is that the hill of Achol Pii is the only rocky one in the area, unsuitable for farming and dangerous for building. Strip quarries cross it, creating a front more than a mile and a half wide. The dirt road that climbs toward the residential area skirts dizzying ravines whose sides could crumble at any minute. On the lower slope of the hill is the constant traffic of trucks belonging to the big construction companies. On the upper part are dozens of rock-smashers and stonecutters intent on their back-breaking labor. The men and boys break away great blocks of rock from the hillside. The women and older men use hammers and chisels to break these up into stones a little bigger than walnuts: these will be sold as cobbling stones. They fill old yellow gallon jerry cans. They get paid 100 shillings for each can, that is, 55 cents. In one uninterrupted day of work, a woman like the one in front of me with a kerchief on her head, hitting a sharp white rock leaning against her legs with unbroken rhythm, can fill 20 cans; she will earn 2,000 shillings, or about $1.20. During the rainy season the narrow gullies where the boys work become dangerous. Recently, within the span of two weeks, ten people died under landslides.

“Thanks, Reagan, we’ve already eaten!” Rose Busingye, who visits Acholi Quarter every week on behalf of the Meeting Point, smilingly refuses a fried fish, damp and lukewarm from its long stay in the hand of a little 6-year-old boy holding it out to us. Everyone in this shanty town knows him, and not just for his bombastic name. Reagan may be the only child of an unwed father in all of Acholi Quarter. His mother left home when he was just one month old, and his father is a mentally ill youth who has adopted for himself the name of a famous local singer, Makudeba. Always dressed in the latest fashion (as much as he can afford to be), he used to writhe like one possessed to the sound of music that only he could hear when he would run into Rose in the alleys of the ghetto. Now he walks very slowly, and when the women who are gathered in the Meeting Point meet once a week with Rose and some volunteers under an open pavilion to sew and be together for a while, he sits there silently with a stunned look in his eyes. A lump has appeared on his neck, a lymphoma which is the unmistakable sign of AIDS in progress. Reagan, who is not a lively child, is HIV-positive. The neighbors take care of him with the money from a long-distance adoption.

No Discrimination
“Before, we were abandoned by everyone and had no hope. Now the Meeting Point does so much for us and they really love us. They help our children go to school, they bring us medicine. With this work on Thursdays we make knitwear and earn something by selling it. They don’t ask you what your religion is, they don’t discriminate between Adventists, Pentecostals, Catholics, and non-Christians.” Not all of the women are extroverted like Frances, who wants the guest from Italy to know immediately just how things are, with these thirty women who are HIV-positive or suffering from AIDS, squatting barefoot on the concrete floor of the pavilion, intent on their work. Jenny, for example, has enormous eyes filled with curiosity in her thin face, but shyness holds her back. Rose realizes it and calls to her to come near. The blue chiffon kerchief over her hair gives her a melancholy grace while she tells us she is 42 years old, has been a widow for eleven years, and infected for ten. “Jenny would get drunk and stay by herself all day long,” Rose recounts. “The first few times she came here she would linger on the threshold, and go back and forth like a kitten. Now she says, ‘Here I am welcomed, here they care about me. The only thing the “saved” (an evangelical sect) knew how to do was to tell me, “Jesus loves you, Jesus saves you,” but there was no relationship with them.’”

Vicky, instead, would love to communicate, but she doesn’t know English. She is illiterate and only speaks Acholi. She is 28 years old and HIV-positive; in the last nine years of her life, she has had six children with five different men. “God’s most secret word is ‘mercy.’ Vicky is the most enthusiastic person we have encountered,” says Rose. “So we chose her to be the group leader. She is the one who tells us about the cases of greatest need. She has asked to be baptized. Another thirty people in Acholi Quarter have also requested it. We shall have the celebration here, with the Episcopal Vicar. Perhaps one day Vicky will change her way of living.” In the meantime, she has adopted a child from the south and says about her baptism, “I don’t know very well what it means to be Catholic; I only know that I want to be like those who love me, who treat me like a person.”

Belonging to Each Other
At Acholi Quarter, the Meeting Point has also built a community hall which it uses for courses in hygiene, home economics, and reading and writing for adults. “They have learned to know the difference between us and the other organizations,” Rose says. “The others do for them; we do with them. Everything we have built, we have made with their contribution. We want each person to feel part of it. And in fact, they are beginning to understand that it is possible to belong to each other, to belong to a companionship. For them, who are almost all women alone, abandoned by their husbands or AIDS widows, this is a revolution.” In the meantime, the work is finished, and the women sing the guest’s song and dance in a circle: “Come back among us, we’ll dance for you.”