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'We Slept Hungry That Night'

Two days after the wedding they looked at each other:`Why have we got married? There is nothing to make a life with?'

By AILSA HAMILTON
Bringing up a family in the 1980s is a hazardous affair under any circumstances, and nowhere more so than in Uganda, the beautiful 'pearl of Africa', now emerging from 20 years of civil war. In Kampala, the capital, vivid flowers decorate remade roads, rows of corn and sweet potato flourish in odd corners, shops show proud painted faces, policemen in new uniforms direct traffic whose quantity and decibels seem undiscouraged by frequent petrol shortages. The new constitution is being put together, industries are restarting, the child soldiers are at school. There are thousands of orphans to care for and daily life for everyone is a struggle. The highest monthly salary may cover two weeks' food.

In this setting, James and Joselyn Napokoli have started out on their family life. They come from opposite sides of Uganda. James's tribe, the Bagishu, straddle the border with Kenya.

Joselyn is a Manyankole, whose people live both in Uganda and Burundi. James was a graduate in psychology from Makerere University, Joselyn a secretary who had also been trained in handcrafts by an aunt. She had dignity and beauty, and a bevy of friends. James, a reticent man, asked one day, 'Do you think you could keep yourself to one boyfriend - me?' 'Yes' she replied.

They were married in April 1986, soon after Yoweri Museveni took over as President. They had office jobs, but there was not enough money to live on and nowhere decent to live. Two days after the wedding they sat and looked at each other in an empty room: 'Why have we got married? There is nothing to make a life with.'

The quality they had liked in each other was honesty.'We decided to make this the basis of our married life,' says Joselyn. 'This meant no stealing and no bribes. But we didn't know how we would manage.' That night they prayed. In the morning Joselyn woke to the thought, 'Go and thank Henry for his help with the wedding.' She went to pay this courtesy call. Henry had some possessions he was not using, and these he offered to Joselyn to sell. So she arrived home with some food and a little cash in hand.

'A few mornings later, the thought came into my mind, "You must start to crochet again." I couldn't see why, because I had crocheted for months and no one had wanted to buy. But the thought came back, "You must start to crochet again." So I bought some yarn, and I started. And customers came!'

They found a flat. In the African way, from the little they had they gave to those who had nothing. One day Joselyn said to a friend, 'If I keep giving you money, what will happen if I am ill or get killed? I must help you look after yourself.' So she taught her friend to crochet, including her aunt's patterns. Then she said, 'Now you can teach other people too. And when you invent a beautiful pattern, share it with someone else.' The girl started to keep herself and her baby. The twin skills of honesty and hard work had shown a way out of the helplessness trap.

But handcraft doesn't make a home. 'In a home,' says James, 'there are two organisms, husband and wife. But I considered myself the owner of the home, so I took the decisions which were ours. One day when I got my salary I rushed to the market and bought a fancy shirt when we didn't have enough dishes in the house. Joselyn was furious, and she went out and spent all her money on her hair. We slept hungry that night.

'I had thought that if peace was to come to my country, it had to start with the government. But then I had to apologize to my wife. She did the same. Now before we take decisions concerning money, or appointments, or what to do in a day, we sit together in quiet and each listen to our inner voice, then discuss matters humbly and take one decision. And we always try to put things right between us before we start a new day.'

Barbara arrived, a welcome child. Two months later, they were thrown out of their flat. First they moved to a room which had been used for storage. Then a cousin lent them his garage. There was nowhere to put anything down, and when one person stood on the floor, the other two had to be on the bed. There was no electric light, and water had to be brought from three miles off. It was difficult to keep clean, and it was difficult to stay friends. Most difficult for Joselyn was to see her capable, intelligent husband forced to live in a garage.

The day after their wedding, a friend had talked to them about the moral and spiritual re-armament of Africa, wondering whether this could be a key to a new future for Uganda. 'I didn't think moral re-armament would be possible,' James remarks. 'There was so much turmoil in this country - death, division, dishonesty. But I thought that if I became absolute in my standards, perhaps I could help others to do it too. Past leadership attached no significance to morality and ethical behaviour. This left behind a society with a deeply corroded moral fibre.'

They were lent a sitting room in which to entertain friends. They began to read about other countries, to meet people from outside Uganda and outside Africa. They began to realize that as their sufferings made them part of a torn world, so perhaps their personal victories could make them part of mending the world. But they still lived in the garage where only one person at a time could stand on the floor.

One day there was, again, no more money. Joselyn became desperate. She had heard about a counsellor who prayed with people and took Barbara with her to see him. 'As I walked in, he said, "All is not well with you financially. And you are trying to sell something no one wants to buy." This was true. I had been trying to sell my wedding dress, the only thing we still had which was of any value, and everyone who looked at it found some different fault with it.' He and Joselyn prayed. 'In two weeks,' he said, 'you will have money and a three-bedroomed house.'

Joselyn picked up Barbara and the wedding-dress bag and went out into the hot, dusty street. She came to a bridal shop. 'Yes, certainly,' said the owner when she saw the dress. 'How much do you want for it?' Joselyn mentioned the substantial sum which it was worth. 'I've only got half of that here with me today, but come back tomorrow and I will give you the rest.' Joselyn phoned James and went home to a garage lit with happiness.

The following week, the phone in James's office rang. It was a colleague: 'I have been posted to another town. I think you should take over my house. It has three bedrooms. I hope it will be all right for you.' The Napokolis did their sums, decided they could not quite manage the rent but that it was where God wanted them to be, and by the end of the week they had moved in.

James became manager of a bookshop. Joselyn organized handcraft classes for the women in her new neighbourhood, and one of the bedrooms became a workshop which gradually filled with basket-work and imaginative decorations made from jute and seeds. Neighbours and friends bought these as Christmas gifts and the makers bought food and clothes for their families.

Then James's brother was attacked by political enemies and had to hide in the bush. He left behind a farm and seven children. James had to take over. Four of the children were sent to schools. The other three came to Kampala and James and Joselyn set about the task of bringing up a suddenly enlarged family of teenagers who had no previous experience of city life. 'When my brother was attacked, I developed strong feelings of revenge,' says James. 'These thoughts were making my faith waver. But I was challenged by my conscience that if I am to help Uganda to attain development, I must forgive the man who wanted to kill my brother. God loves him as much as he loves my brother.'

Joselyn, by now expecting their second child, then became seriously ill. She had to stop her office job and give up the handcrafts. In a house filled with needy and noisy children, all she could do was lie still in her hot room, endure acute physical discomfort, and pray. Gradually her condition settled and her strength returned, and she began to move about the house again.

Petrified

Then Barbara got flu. A distracted doctor forgot that she was allergic to penicillin and gave her an injection. In Joselyn's arms, Barbara collapsed. The petrified doctor refused further aid. Joselyn ran to another clinic. 'By the time I got there, I was sure that she was dead and I ran sobbing out into the street. A priest stopped me and said, "My daughter, return to the clinic and tell God that you want your child back." ' Joselyn retraced her steps. She found a group of nurses round the child's bed, fighting to bring back her breath. After three hours the battle was won, and Barbara was taken home to her rumbustious country cousins.

Barbara has had a christening, a white headdress on her black hair, her godparents pledging themselves to live lives of faith and integrity by her side until she is safely grown. She now has a brother. Joselyn is planning to reopen the handcraft classes. The family wakes at four each morning - two hours before cockcrow, three hours before the equatorial daylight - to read the Bible, pray and listen to God together. At five the children read novels, to improve their language and broaden their education. At six begins the prelude of lighting fires, fetching and heating water, washing and dressing, eating breakfast and cleaning. By 7.20, except for the babies who are left in the care of a young girl, the family are off to school, to the bookshop, to the office.

'Prayer helped me to survive,' says Joselyn. 'You may measure success by whether you have a Mercedes-Benz or a big house, but what really matters is the spiritual content of each individual.'

James adds, 'We can remain poor, but we must be honest with God.' He takes these beliefs with him to the bookshop which he manages. One day a customer handed over a 10,000 shilling note, mistaking it for 1,000. He was astonished to be given it back, and knelt to thank them. 'I have never seen anything like this happen in Uganda, where so many people need so much money,' he said.

Recently James remembered a debt he owed the bookshop himself. Rather than quietly return the money, he called together the junior staff and apologized for having forgotten. 'It was hard to talk to my staff,' he says, 'because they regarded me as a god who couldn't be spoken to.' His reasons for doing difficult things are cogent: 'Ultimately, Uganda's peace will have to come from moral solutions. Today's problems of corruption, tribalism, selfishness, hatred, fighting, will not be solved by words and laws. They can only be solved through reorientation of the minds and hearts of Ugandans.'

Langue de l'article

English

Type d'article
Type d'entité
Année de l'article
1988
Périodique
Publishing permission
Granted
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