Posted by: Errow | July 9, 2008

Remember Herman: A Somber 4th of July In Uganda

Contributed by Erin Reynolds

I hope everyone had a wonderful fourth of July! On Saturday some of the teachers at one of the schools where we teach offered to take our group around to some of the historic sites nearby, so we traveled to Kampala and visited the old palace (which is being renovated and is no longer in use), the burial tombs of past Ugandan Kings, Lake Victoria, and a number of beautiful, old cathedrals.

Visiting the palace was an incredible experience. The palace is surrounded by a tall fence, and then gardens and fields surround it. No one lives there now (it is being renovated), but in times past people were forced to farm for the king and so hundreds of workers would care for the land around the palace. Beneath the palace was a huge lake that the people had built for the King – because he liked to swim. The lake was HUGE! It seemed like the size of seven or eight football fields, and it had all been hand-dug over 100 years ago.

Because the palace was being renovated we couldn’t go inside, and since there weren’t any other buildings we could see (and we weren’t even allowed to approach the palace, we just looked at it from about 100-200 yards away) we were pretty disappointed that we had paid to view the palace. The grounds weren’t even impressive; old cars which the former king had buried so that his enemies couldn’t use them stuck out of the ground; most of the shrubbery had been destroyed in previous wars, etc.

Our guide didn’t speak English (the teachers with us just translated what he said) and after giving us a brief history of the Ugandan Kingdom he headed away from the palace down a hill around a corner. We had no idea where we were going, and thought we were going to see the view of the valley below which we weren’t all that excited about since we’d just come from the valley and there wasn’t much there but city chaos.

As we came around the corner one of the teachers mentioned, “We’re going to the cave.” “What cave?” we asked. During the reign of Idi Amin (the President of about 30 years ago) he built a cave into the side of the hill. The cave was about the size of a semi-truck (it looked like it was the size that a semi-truck could back up to and empty contents from.) We were told that Amin and subsequent presidents hid weapons here, and also prisoners. As we got closer to the cave we could see that along the left-hand side of the cave were five or six large openings that each led to a large cement room. The walls and ceiling were crumbling, covered with bats, and the floor of the main cave was covered in water.

“Do you see what’s written on the wall?” they asked. Once they drew our attention to it, we say that the walls were covered in chalk writing. “What does it say?” we asked. Most of the writing was in Lugandan, so they translated. “Please never forget me! Hamis” “Remember me! Peter” I could only read one, in English. “Please remember (in Lugandan, and then in English) Herman, the boy from (a place I couldn’t read)”.

They explained that before the President’s political prisoners were killed (usually stabbed) they were taken here and held captive for days or months or years. Often their families had no idea where they were, or what had happened to them or if they would ever see them again. The prisoners, knowing they would never see their families again and could be killed any day, would write on the walls, telling their families they loved them and to remember them and what they were fighting for. This was all happening less than fifteen years ago.

It was quite the way to spend the fourth – realizing how tenuous and short-lived (or non-existent) freedom can be. This country has never experienced the freedom that I’ve enjoyed throughout my whole life. Their constitution is only thirty years old, and many of the people have lived through civil war and tribal conflict. Many have never read a book, have never seen their parents or teachers reading a book, and have never heard of any of the world “heroes” or leaders that are commonplace in the US. They do not know their grandparents who died long before they were born, and they will not live to see their grandchildren.

I met with a man this week that is prominent in this community and has accomplished a lot and he said that his accomplishments could be largely attributed to a question that a visitor asked his wife. He and his wife were married with a few children and struggling financially – as is almost everyone here. His wife spent hours making simple mats; it was very tedious and not very profitable labor. He also had a job that he didn’t enjoy that wasn’t nearly enough to support his family. There seemed to be no way out for them.

But one evening this visitor asked his wife, “Do you enjoy your work?” Of course she answered no. “How long will you be doing that?” he asked. And then, “Is this really what you were made to do? Do you want to spend you life doing this?” He asked it in such a way that it really made her think. But what other options did she have?

This man said that he and his wife thought for months about that question. Bit by bit their perspective changed; they started talking about what they loved to do; they started picturing how their lives could be and realizing they could start to slowly change things in how they lived and what they worked for.

After telling me his story, he asked me a question. “You know what Ugandans need? Inspiration. They need to be inspired. Many of them are hungry; they are ill; they are in desperate situations, really. But they will not change until they can catch a vision of something better. It all starts with being inspired.”

I agree with him, and that’s why I have felt that this work LEU is doing is so critical. Our whole focus is to inspire – to inspire those teachers who spend all day, every day with those children, and who are part of the key to inspiring the next generation to take two steps forward, and then the next, and then the next.

So this July everyone remember Herman, the boy from Africa, who lived and died for an idea he never saw realized – freedom; and thank God for the freedoms you experience every day. Thank God that you have more than one shirt and that you actually have some shoes. Thank God that you weren’t born with AIDS, that you have access to medical care, and for the inspiring examples you have seen from your youth. And thank God for the fourth and everything it symbolizes!

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