Friday, January 9, 2009
Fiona sat quietly on the floor of the dress shop and regarded me somberly with her massive, dark and mournful eyes. She smiled shyly when I introduced myself but her smile did not reach her unforgettable eyes.
We waited in silence for other prostitutes to show up for our meeting. I wondered hold old Fiona was. She looked young in her form fitting denim capris and her western style hat. She was striking and I felt drawn to this wounded fawn and wanted to tell her that her life could be filled with joy and laughter. That she was a beautiful child loved completely by God just as she was. That he could take away her pain—her troubled past and could give her a future filled with hope and dignity.
She sat on a mat just behind the store’s display case. Reaching inside she pulled out a pair of black and white striped slip on shoes. Trying them on she stuck her feet out to admire them. Another young woman entered and joined Fiona in examining shoes within the case.
I began to doubt my mission. Could I promise these girls a more affluent lifestyle? Would the businesses I could set them up in provide a rival income to what they could earn in prostitution? I would be meeting six or seven girls who claimed they wanted to come out of prostitution to a new life. What was I thinking? Where would I get the funds needed for such an undertaking? I was way over my head this time. Too late to back out as the girls gathered and looked to me expectantly.
The words of my brother Tom, founder of Hope 4 Kids International chimed inside my head. “If it’s bigger than you—it must be God!”
Well, God. I have a feeling this is way bigger than me—so you had better take over! And quickly!
I glanced at Pastor Joseph who sat mutely. Does he think this is an impossible task? Does he just believe God will provide? Oh God. Help! Pastor Joseph, along with Pastor Ruth was going to spearhead this endeavor. I would provide the funding. They would provide the instruction and run the rehabilitation program.
We walked to the garden of a nearby hotel and gathered around the table with five young women and my friend Frida. We ordered sodas and Pastor Joseph said he would leave Frida and me to interview the girls privately and to call him when we were ready to wrap up.
We sipped our sodas and made small talk
Pascalina was seated to my left. Her eyes lit up when she spoke in flawless English. Although the other girls knew English they looked to her to help them express themselves.
Twenty-six-years old—Pascalina stated without pity: “We are a poor people. My dad is sick and my mom sells tomatoes and small things like that in the market. I am their only daughter and I love my family so much. I have to support them. I have two younger brothers and I also pay their school fees. I dropped out of school in fourth grade to began cooking and selling treats at the very school where I had studied.”
Pascalina was hired as a house girl and took her wages home to her family. Someone helped her find a job at a bar where she worked hard and saved enough money to rent a big house for her parents. “It had two rooms!”
Pascalina had a boyfriend who promised to marry her. She thought he would take care of her always but when her father entered the hospital and needed Pascalina to care for him her boyfriend married another girl. “I was so hurt by that boy. I started to go to bars and allowed men to buy me drinks which led to prostitution. I have been a prostitute for six years.”
“Are your parents aware that you are a prostitute?”
“No. They would be so angry. They love me so much because I am their only daughter. That’s why I don’t want to tell them.”
“What are your dreams?”
“My dreams?” Pascalina paused, took a deep breath and began: “My dreams. I would like so much to study. All I want in my life—if I could get support I could start a business. I’m now too old. I can’t go back to school.”
“You are not too old. You can go to school,” Frida interjected.
Pascalina sat up straight and spoke earnestly: “I’d like to be someone else. If I can go back to school and study so that I can be something else—I want to be like other people—like other friends. . . I have so many friends who go to school and they study. I admire them so much but I didn’t make it. So. If God can help me and I also can go for studies I will be so happy!”
Frida said she should go to school and not be ashamed to be in fourth grade. “There are other big kids. You wouldn’t be the only one.”
Another spoke up. “I heard of a lady who is seventy years old and she is in the sixth grade. It’s possible for you to go to school!”
“Yes,” Frida agreed. “You have to forget about the years.”
Pascalina’s turned hope-filled eyes to mine. “Is it possible?”
I nodded. “It’s possible. I’m sure the kids would love you. They will admire you and say: ‘look at her. She wants to learn.’”
“Now. Since I am the one looking after my family—by the time I will be at school—they will have no one to look after them. Those two brothers have to have school fees.”
“If your mom was helped to start a business is she healthy enough to support the family?”
“Yes. She could do some small business at home—selling vegetables and things like that.”
“Let me talk to Pastor Joseph and see what we can do.”
Fiona sat directly across the table from me. “Fiona. Tell me your story.”
She is eighteen years old and came from Rwanda where she lost her parents in the genocide. She said, “A good woman took me in and cared for me—sent me to school and treated me as a daughter. But then the woman died and I remained in the home with her husband. I was fourteen when he raped me.” Betrayed and bewildered by this sudden violent behavior in the house she considered home Fiona escaped to the streets but not before the man had brutally raped her three times.
She met other girls living on the streets and they decided to go to Kampala, Uganda to find a better life. Fiona found work in a bar and customers started paying her for sex. She met a boy and thought her suffering would be over when they moved in together. He soon tired of her and ran away with another girl—leaving her once again abandoned and disappointed. She returned to prostitution and moved to Mlaba which is on the border between Kenya and Uganda. There is a lot of action there because of the truckers crossing the border.
“If you didn’t have to sell yourself to men what would your dream occupation be?”
“I would like to be a business woman. I would like to have a saloon. I want to leave prostitution. I want to learn English and be a business woman. That’s all I want.”
Later when Pastor Joseph returned and we were wrapping up our discussion I informed him: “Fiona would like to have a saloon. Do we support that?”
Puzzled I wondered how owning a saloon would deliver her from prostitution. After further discussion it dawned on me. They were talking about a hair salon!
The three other young women poured out their stories and dreams—you’ll have to wait till my book comes out to hear all the stories. We talked about protection and the use of condoms which they said they insist their customers use. I’ve heard many stories from women telling they beg their HIV positive husbands to use condoms and they refuse. I asked the girls if any of their customers refused to wear condoms.
“Yes,” came the answer. “Then we just march out of there.”
“Do they get angry?”
“Yes. Of course. They slap us and beat us because they are not getting what they expected but we don’t want to get AIDS.”
Pastor Joseph gave them his phone number and told them he would have answers for them by Monday. I gave them clothing, Bibles and other small gifts and told them. “I want you to know that God loves you just as you are. He understands your suffering and why you turned to prostitution. You are special to Him and He cares about your hurts and your dreams. He wants the best for you and with His help we will find a way.”
Back in Pastor Ruth’s office I met two other girls who were longing to leave the life of prostitution. One was deaf and had high hopes of marrying her boyfriend. They communicated by writing notes to one another. One day she discovered he had another girlfriend and cried asking why. He wrote on a piece of paper. “Why would I marry a deaf person?” Hopes dashed and defeated Evelyn decided she could only be loved by men willing to pay for her time and they would return home to their hearing wives.
Pastor Ruth, Pastor Joseph and I decided to meet the next morning to put our heads together and figure out how we could help these girls. I hardly slept that night. How were we going to provide a way out? I kept seeing their faces—hearing their words—“I just want to be like other people. . .I want out of this prostitution.. . I don’t want AIDS. . . I want to study. . . I want a saloon. . .” We’d have to change their environment. The temptation to return would be great. They may not all make it. But what if Fiona’s eyes would start to smile and she could eventually own her own salon. What if Pascalina got the education she desires? What if Evelyn discovered she was loveable just as she was and it didn’t matter if she were deaf? What if we could rent a large room where the girls could be safe? What if they were surrounded by loving people who could mentor them?
What in the world am I doing? I didn’t come to Uganda intending to rescue prostitutes. I wanted to know about the young girls who are being used as sex slaves by their parents and guardians but when I asked around no one could tell me about them. I even went to the head of domestic affairs and asked her. She responded. “Of course I have heard these stories but I know of no one who does this sort of thing.” For the time being the secrets of these young girls will remain secret. . .
Now I had seven prostitutes on my hands—begging me to give them an opportunity to escape. I couldn’t walk away without trying. But with limited funds what could be accomplished?
In the morning I stopped by the gated compound where Frida lives with her new husband, Andrew. They showed me their apartment which was one room with a curtain hanging to make it into a two room apartment. They were so proud and pointed out they even had electricity—a light bulb hung from the ceiling. I looked over the compound and at the cement buildings fashioned into apartments and contemplated. . .
Frida introduced me to the Bishops wife who owns and oversees this complex.
“Do you have any empty apartments?”
“Yes. Two. A very big room and another small room for rent. The cost of electricity and water is included.”
Hmmmm. “Is the compound locked at night?”
“Yes. We lock the gates at 10PM so everyone has to be home by then.”
Hmmmmm. I wonder. . .
As soon as Ruth, Joseph and I met I told them about the bishop’s wife. “We have five girls willing to move here. What if we put them all together in that big room at the compound? Would that work? Maybe we could put a trusted widow in with them to mentor them? And Frida lives there. She has already shown the girls she is a friend. . .”
Joseph questioned if the bishop would allow such girls to live there. Ruth said maybe we would not have to tell him their background.
“But he will find out. . .”
The three of us jumped into a car and went to visit the bishop’s wife. She showed us the room which was huge. Five or six women could easily live there. They could even put up curtains to divide up the room if they wanted privacy. She showed us the bathrooms with running water and introduced us to some of the residents. Then we sat down to talk. Ruth told her the young women were prostitutes and wanted a new life. Did she think the bishop would allow them to live there?
“Yes. This would be a good place for them. With the church right here they could have the opportunity to attend services and could live surrounded by Christians. Yes. I know the bishop will agree.”
We left in high spirits. We had a place for at least five girls to live. Now to work out the details. The rent was around $60 a month—that was doable. Maybe this project wouldn’t be so expensive after all. Then Ruth and Joseph started making lists of supplies, furnishing, etc. My optimism went down the tubes as the day wore on. Tom is going to kill me. How do I get myself into these things? Who is going to support these women while they are being trained in their new professions?
Stress must have been written all over my face as Pastor Ruth broke into my thoughts. “Sister Rachel. If you had known the costs of the karamojong feeding program when you gave me that first $1000 and told me to begin feeding the Karamojong children you would never have began. But look what God has done. He will do the same with this program.”
I had to agree but still had a lot of anxiety as I reflected on scarce months when I didn’t know how we were going to feed those children. In the fifteen months of the program they have never had to tell those 420 children, “There is no food.” If we can feed all those children surely we can help seven prostitutes. . .
Pastor Joseph received a call from Fiona. “I have another friend who wants to leave prostitution. Can you help her?”
Uh. Oh. I can see where this is going to go. . . once the word gets out. . . okay. . . For today we will focus on these seven. . .
At the end of the day when we counted the costs and I counted my money we had enough to pay six months rent, purchase beds, bedding and everything necessary to set up a house for six women. We agreed that everything would belong to the ministry and if a girl left the program that the beds, etc. would be left behind for whom ever would take her place. We also agreed we needed to come up with a first-class name for the project and not refer to the girls as “my prostitutes.”
Two of the women want to learn tailoring. There was enough money to purchase two sewing machines and sewing supplies. Okay. I could breathe. Three want to learn to do hair. Pastor Ruth said she had put one of the ladies at Smile Africa through beauty school and now she needed to be set up in a shop. She said if we could purchase the items needed –around $2000 we could make an agreement with her that in exchange for setting her up she would have to train whomever we send to her at no charge.
Could we get that in writing?
Okay. But right now I don’t have the money so in the meantime what do we do with the three girls who want to do hair?
They could come with the two who are learning tailoring at Smile Africa and could be taught to make necklaces or other crafts so they are kept busy while they wait to start their training in hair.
Okay. That would work. My breathing was almost back to normal. What kind of pocket money would the girls need each month if we are providing their food and shelter?
About twenty dollars.
Okay if we were supporting seven girls that would be $140 a month. If I don’t get fired I could pay that. . .
As I watched it all unfold I felt an excitement rising within. I know this is the right thing to do and God will see it through!
Joseph and I stopped to see the head of a primary school which is near the compound. He told him: “We have a child who needs to go to fourth grade but she is a bit mature.”
“That is okay. We have another who is older than that. She boards here. She is in fifth grade but we board her with the seventh grade class because they are bigger and she blends in better. The children love her and she helps them with their classes. Will she be boarding?”
“For now she will just be attending day school.”
“Okay. But let me advise you to put her in boarding. When we get students that age there are too many distractions on the street to and from school which call them away from their studies. If they are boarding they are not allowed out beyond our gates and they also have night study which helps them to be serious about school.”
Hmmmmm. We’ll have to think about that. . .
Check back for updates as this program begins to soar!
People have been asking how they can donate to this project. If you want to donate online here is the direct link
copy and paste the address to your browser.
It will say "Smile Africa widow's fund" but if you let me know I will be sure it is earmarked for this project. Thanks!!