‘Staying lonely is not easy’

Uganda, December 8, 2010

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Mohamud Ali Mohamed  </span>
    Laboi. Photo: Mohamud Ali Mohamed
  <span class="field-credit">
    Stacey Rice/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Mary has two young girls and is also self-appointed caretaker to this war-orphaned boy. Photo: Stacey Rice/Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Stacey Rice/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Mary at home. Photo: Stacey Rice/Mercy Corps

In a place for the displaced, two women share a common bond; one wisened and weathered, the other young, ambitious and full of ideas. The story is not only theirs, but also belongs to hundreds — thousands — of women like them who have lost their husbands, innocent victims of unceasing political conflict and a brutal rebel group, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).

Laboi — 50 years old and the mother of eight — now lives alone, taking care of a few of her grandchildren in the camp for internally displaced people (IDPs). In 1971, during the Idi Amin regime, her first husband was killed “by the military,” she shrugs, in the town of Jinja where he worked in a sugar cane plantation. She remarried, but lost her second husband also. The “when” and “how” are unclear, as throughout the years, it becomes difficult to remember the exact dates of the tragedies throughout her life.

Laboi has also lost one child to malaria. When asked what other illnesses plague her community, malaria is her only response — always malaria. As a health intern, I can’t help but wonder if it truly is malaria or if that is the “go to” disease whenever symptoms show themselves, although I certainly do not refute the possibility. According to the World Health Organization, malaria takes the lives of up to 100,000 Ugandan children yearly.

Mary — 28 years old, the mother of two beautiful girls and self-appointed caretaker of an orphan boy — does not plan to remarry, but has many other hopes. Her husband was killed by the LRA returning home from school one day in 2003. Mary has finished secondary school but, after her parents’ death when she was 17, she no longer had the funds to continue her schooling. She wishes to return to school one day, to study stenography.

Now there is peace, and people are returning to their homes But, much like the thousands of women who have lost their loved ones during the past thirty years, Mary and Laboi have nowhere to go.

Laboi’s children have left, and left her behind, searching for their prosperity. Her vision of the future looks much like her current life.

She hopes to continue “digging” in her garden and watching her grandchildren grow. She is grateful for the agriculture project Mercy Corps has provided, she is happy to receive seedlings and learn how to grow them. Although she has little space at her own homestead to plant them, she will continue to work in the Women’s Gardening Group, which she originally joined to benefit from the “diet” of new vegetables, such as carrots and eggplant, Mercy Corps has introduced.

But aside from the dietary benefits of the Gardening Group, the women have found companionship. Mary is the leader of the group — a well-spoken, articulate and educated woman, as well as the only of the group who speaks English. Mary says the gardening group has been a wonderful thing for the community, but points out that if they had the proper tools, they could go farther with it. Mary cannot share her ideas with the men of the community because, despite her intelligence, as a woman they don’t include her in their discussions, “Farming is the work of women,” she says shyly, looking down at her hands.

An old woman, a young woman. A woman content with her place in life, and a woman with big dreams. The greatest difficulty for each is the struggle to prosper after the deaths of their men.

When asked why she joined the group, Mary responds “Because staying lonely is not easy.” It is with that statement that the hardships these women have faced really hit me.

I am inspired by their ability to face adversity and to not only simply keep on surviving, but to find the good things in life — a garden, a child, and the friendship of a fellow woman.