Under an unrelenting Ugandan sun, I watched as women tended to their community garden in Wol, a parish in northern Uganda’s Pader District. With bowed backs, each woman carefully attended to fledgling onions, cabbages and eggplants, plunging their hands into the moist earth in order to aerate the soil and remove weeds.
I admired the women’s ability to do such physical work with grace and humor. They gossiped and giggled in brightly-colored skirts, as tiny beads of sweat began to aggregate on their noses and lips, eventually sliding down their faces in steady streams.
I also noticed a small girl, wearing a beautifully-hued orange headscarf, quietly observing the women as she leaned against a tree. She played with a small piece of broken bark in her hands, but was quick to walk over to help any woman who was noticeably struggling with one of her crops. The women all appeared familiar and tender with this girl, playfully chatting with her while they worked.
In a clumsy jumble of Luo and English, I managed to ask one of the women to point to the girl’s mother, assuming she was one of the ladies working in the field. The woman shook her head. “No mother,” she told me.
Later, sitting side by side under a shaded tree, five-year-old Scovia and her grandmother, Viola, shared their stories.
Viola recently joined the Dwog Pacu group (translated as "Come Home,” a reference to those who spent many years in camps for internally displaced people due to the war) to participate in Mercy Corps’ Healthy Practices, Strong Communities program. Each day, she is accompanied by her little granddaughter, the only child of Viola’s son, Walter.
Around the time that Scovia was learning to walk, Walter came home one evening to find an empty house. His wife had run off with another man and had left young her young child at a neighbor’s home. Since that day, Viola and Walter have never seen or heard from Scovia’s mother.
As it is customary for women in Uganda to care for children, Walter decided that Scovia should live with her grandmother. While her father visits occasionally, he does not have a strong presence in his daughter’s life. Viola and Scovia now live alone in the village of Odoko Mit.
Viola herself is no stranger to tragedy and loss. Seventeen years ago, the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army invaded her family’s home and shot her husband, an elected Local Councilman, in the head. Devastated, Viola was left to care for her two sons. Listening to the soft-spoken tone of her voice and watching her eyes dart down to her soiled blue dress, her grief is still palpable.
But despite such tragedies for both women, comfort and peace now resound, reaching across generations.
When asked if the two women are close, they both look at each other for a few moments and grin, their extraordinary bond evident. Although their legs are already entangled sitting under the tree, Scovia instinctively reaches over to clasp her grandmother’s hands.
Viola responds, “We are very close. We are friends. And I am Scovia’s mother now and she is my daughter.”
Through participation in the Healthy Practices, Strong Communities program, Viola has been able to quit her unsteady job as hired help digging for farmers, as well as making charcoal. She now brings home vegetables grown in the garden, and is also able to sell some of the produce at local markets. Now, Viola will be able to send Scovia to school and provide her with a better life.
Joining her grandmother in the field every day has also provided Scovia with early knowledge on agriculture, as well as invaluable life skills. Although timid, she has built strong relationships with the women in the community garden group. They provide her with female role models and are, in a way, extended family members.
“Scovia loves coming to the garden,” Viola adds. “She refuses to stay with a neighbor or be anywhere else.”
When asked if she has learned to cultivate crops from being in the garden every day, Scovia smiles. “Cabbage!” she shouts, with shining, proud eyes, pointing at a nearby sprouting green head.
Although both Scovia and Viola have suffered great loss, they are living proof that sorrow can find comfort in companionship, even between individuals separated by half a century. And as Scovia jumps up to the call of another female member of “Come Home,” she smiles and releases Viola’s hand, knowing she is always surrounded by family and is, in fact, home.