Book Review| A Girl is a Body of Water by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, Tovah Ott , et al.

Book Review by Judy Dederick

A Girl is a Body of Water

by  Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, Tovah Ott, et al. (Author)

Think about yourself as a young (American) adolescent. Did you wish you had a different mother?  Were you afraid of being caught in a lie and punished?  How much time did you spend thinking about what would happen if you said “Hi” to the classmate you had a crush on?

Each of those intense feelings was grounded in a cultural context: you knew your angry thought would not hurt your mother and might well amuse her. If you intentionally did something bad–maybe to test a limit—you knew you would be “grounded” or some other punishment, after which everything would be ok again. And all of your friends had different ideas about how to get attention from a crush—it was endlessly discussed, and there were no rules.

Kirabo, in A Girl Is A Body of Water, faces those and myriad other normal teenage feelings, but her underlying beliefs about them are very different.  In Kirabo’s traditional family in rural Uganda, everyone believes that people can be harmed or changed by witches, so you have the power to ask a witch for help. If something bad happens, everyone wonders if a witch caused it and why. Or, a wife can be dismissed and sent away by the elders and other wives in the extended family and forced to leave her children behind.  So, it is angry feelings are thought to be very dangerous.  Similarly, if you do something considered bad, spirits of all kinds might make you fall into a river or a fire. In addition to being punished by elders–spirits are everywhere and powerful too.  And if you have a crush on an agemate, your family must approve of that person based on that child’s family, their social class, their financial status, and so on, and only with that approval and watched by the family can you engage in ritualized initiatives for a relationship.  We often think that we live in a dangerous world; I could hardly fathom how Kirabo navigated hers, so different from ours.

  I loved reading about Kirabo’s life and development, what happened, and how she understood it.  It is a coming-of-age story from a different world, and while getting to know Kirabo and her friends and family, I was immersed in the stories, legends, and assumptions of traditional Ugandan culture.  I like to think about the children in Real Partners Uganda’s care and wonder what assumptions they make about their lives and their good fortune. I wonder what they think about me, a far-away “sponsor.” How do they think our lives work, and why?

October 2022 by Judy Dederick 

The Queen of Katwe: One Girl’s Triumphant Path to Becoming a Chess Champion Paperback – October 15, 2013 

by  Tim Crothers  (Author)

What comes to mind when you hear the word “slum”? Poverty…..squalor……disease……violence…….futility? In our daily lives, Dear Reader, we don’t encounter slums–we don’t go near them, we don’t know anyone who lives in a slum; we don’t think about slums or their residents.  Or their desperation or their smells.

Katwe is a huge slum in the city of Kampala, Uganda.  In fact, there are seven slums in Kampala, and 60 to 70% of the city’s population of 3.6 million people live in one of them.

At the other extreme, there are areas of great wealth in the city; privileged children have excellent educations, including the arts, sports, and travel.  Children from those different worlds rarely meet or interact, and if they do, it isn’t pretty.

Queen of Katwe is the story of Phiona, a girl who lived in Katwe and who became a national and international champion in chess.  It is a true story. The other characters are Phiona’s mother, brothers and sister from Katwe, and her coach Robert. We follow them as they navigate the world of competitive chess in the world of privilege.  Phiona is about 12 years old as the story begins–no one knows exactly when she was born. (Women in Uganda have five children on average; those who live in slums usually have more. Many die. There are no birth or death records in Katwe.) 

One day Phiona secretly follows her older and younger brothers into a shed where there is a group of boys, all from Katwe, but at least some wear school uniforms.  The boys are playing something and are given mugs of porridge which they all eat ravenously. The man in charge summons Phiona in, but the boys chase her away–she is a girl, and she smells filthy and terrible. The story evolves: the coach is Robert Katende, who grew up in chaos and poverty but has a stable, if very modest, life outside the slum. Robert (whose own story will be reviewed here soon) attributes his success in life to having learned how to think and plan by learning to play chess, and he is committed to offering that opportunity to children in Katwe. Robert realizes that Phiona, although she is totally illiterate, can see and plan strategies as much as eight moves ahead in chess, which is phenomenal.  He teaches and mentors her through endless challenges in Katwe and beyond. Finally, they go to international youth championship games in Siberia. Every step they take threatens almost certain failure, and I couldn’t stop reading.  It is an inspiring story in which we see fierce determination and work on the one hand and stubbornness, lethargy, and hate on the other.  

We, Dear Readers, cannot begin to imagine living in Katwe.  How many times a day do you turn the water on, hardly noticing it?  One of Phiona’s morning chores was to take a plastic can to get about a gallon of “clean” water.  She walked an hour and a half each way. That water had to serve her family of five for the day. An American family uses about 300 gallons of water a day. At the same time, in Katwe, water containing raw sewage runs down open trenches in the streets.  Rain makes the trenches overflow; some people sleep in hammocks to stay dry; occasionally, very young children drown. Showers? Clean clothes?  School?  No–not when everyone is also desperately hungry.  Statistics show that about half of the children in Uganda have stunted growth from chronic hunger.  

The power of  Queen of Katwe is that we follow the people, wonder what will happen next, and care about them.  We also wonder how anyone avoids hopelessness and despair.  In Phiona, with her coach Robert’s support and help, we see that determination plus talent plus luck can sometimes work miracles. Although rare, even Katwe children can have food, school, and enough water not to smell terrible.  It is a gripping story. I recommend it without reservation. 

PS:  Here’s a secret: Disney made a film from the book—you can stream it. Read the book first–it makes the film so much more fascinating. 

September 2022 by Judy Dederick 
Wait for God to Notice By Sari Fordham Available online and in paperback

A mother from Finland……a father who spent his childhood in and out of foster care…. herself born in Indiana, where her father was an Adventist minister…..THAT is the background from which Sari Fordham arrived in Uganda as a missionary’s child.   AND it took place during the murderous regime of Idi Amin.  Sari’s memoir of a happy, adventuresome childhood, under those circumstances, must be read to be believed. 

We watch Sari and her sister, both endlessly curious.   “ You are never safe.  You are never too young to die.”  “Those were the lessons, clean and simple.  But my sister and I would not learn them.  We were children, fearless….. and there were many interesting matters.”  A snake falls on her father, and her mother addresses another in a laundry basket. Mischievous monkeys drive her mother to tears while her father fails to scare the monkeys away with a slingshot. Sari has a life-threatening illness, but there is no gasoline to drive to a hospital. We watch as Sari and her sister learn, grow, explore, debate, laugh, and cry, and also as they are sent to bed chanting, “Shadrach, Meshach, and To-Bed-We-Go.”  

We see Sari’s parents: her mother, embroiled in the day-to-day home and parenting challenges, while her father is safely at the school, teaching adults how to be missionaries.  “Uganda’s food had been vanishing….We were lucky for the beans and rice, the tropical pumpkin, the avocado.  … “Yuck,” we said, but she said, “Beggars can’t be choosers.”  Risking the drive into Kenya to buy soap, flour, and candles, Sari’s mother chatted with the border guards about their wives and children and charmed their way across. She hid her fright, determined to get supplies. Later she wrote to her parents, “The borders were hell.” Most of the missionaries left, but Sari’s father was determined to stay, and they did.

We learn about living under a violent dictatorship. Tens of thousands of elephants and rhinos are slaughtered by soldiers for no known reason. Whole villages are found empty, and many people simply disappear from their homes, never to be seen again. Everyone is afraid because Idi Amin uses his absolute power in unpredictable ways, at one time ordering Sari’s and other families to appear before him for a filmed “welcoming ceremony,” and at other times attacking, arresting, and expelling missionaries. Sari’s father is determined to stay, but her mother is terrified for herself and her children.  

I loved reading Sari Fordham’s memoir.  It gave an almost visceral sense of what that life was, not only for the adults but also for the children. I learned-–about politics, coping in a foreign world, forging a life in a foreign and threatening place, and the strength that faith, commitment, and determination can give. I feel grateful to know those stories.

In Finding Solace: A Journey of Hope After Tragedy by Agnes Nyawayarwo Available online and in paperback

In Finding Solace: A Journey of Hope After Tragedy, published in 2022, Agnes Nyawayarwo enumerates the love and blessings that gave her strength over time. She kept going when her father died, when her mother remarried and had NINE more children, when only a half-brother would support her and send her to school. Older, she started nursing school, dropped out with an unexpected pregnancy, and eventually graduated, but had to stay at home as children arrived in quick succession.

When her husband went to an American college on scholarship, Agnes was at home with seven children and an eighth on the way. One of the children ran away at 13 and was lost; her partner graduated and got a good job but came home soon, very ill with HIV/AIDS.

Struggling to house and feed the family, Agnes got involved with HIV/AIDS organizations; three more children were born; her partner died. At that point, Agnes had birthed ten children, one of whom was missing; she herself was 40 years old. One of her children was ill with HIV, and Agnes was also HIV-positive.

With strength, determination, faith, and perhaps luck, Agnes kept going. She developed a project by which mothers with AIDS created “memory books” for their children. And she became a spokesperson and advocate for mothers with HIV/AIDS, traveling widely in the US and elsewhere, appearing with celebrities including President George Bush and the singer Bono. We, the readers, can hardly believe her strength, her determination, and her story.

Garden of the Lost and Abandoned: The Extraordinary Story of One Woman and the Children She Saves. A true story, set in Uganda, by Jessica Yu, Academy Award-winning and Emmy Award-winning filmmaker and writer. 

August 2022 by JUDY DEDERICK 

There are countless desperate Ugandan children–sick, starving, abused, disabled–in every combination. Every day, hundreds of them get lost from their families or are abandoned by them.  And there is an angel named Gladys. “Hope” is a challenging word–we throw it around– “there’s no hope,” “here’s hoping,” “faith, hope, and charity.”  Gladys’s hopes for those children and her work for them almost defy belief.  

After I read the first three chapters of Garden, I had to put the book down.  Reading about and thus “knowing” about desperate living conditions had been one thing. *(footnote about poverty in Uganda) Seeing and smelling and hearing it with Gladys was entirely different.  I was stunned, and I thought that Gladys must be demented.  I set the book aside for a week.  

Trying again, I found myself engaged with Ezra, whom Gladys found sitting on a bench too shy or scared even to look at her, by Troy, whom she met through the exasperation of an orphanage attendant, and by a dozen other children. All were brought to Gladys’ attention as a last resort before they disappeared into the world of street children. In each child, Gladys saw a reason for hope. So she launched herself on a quest for stability for that child. Once, she traveled hours through the bush seeking the child’s parents; at other times, she prevailed upon a school director or head of a children’s shelter.  Always she listened intensely, not only to the child’s words but to their appearance, actions, and emotions.  She not only placed the children, she kept track of them, visited them, and sometimes supported them or their caregivers.  Their stories made me keep reading, keep hoping for them, and keep understanding that one by one – and not always – Gladys was changing children’s lives.  

Gladys Kalibbala has been a journalist at Uganda’s New Vision newspaper since 2005.   She was born into an educated but not wealthy family where a grandfather raised her and 13 other children.  As a teen, she became a  high-school dropout and the sole supporter of her mother and younger siblings. By the time her siblings graduated, Gladys was a widow with two children of her own, still working full-time in low-paying government jobs.  Never without hope, even though she was middle-aged by then, she took a media communications class and applied to work at New Vision, where her human interest stories turned out to be very successful.  Soon, she had her own column, “Lost and Abandoned,” which led to Jessica Yu’s writing the book at hand. 

Not every child’s story has a happy ending, and Gladys went home every night exhausted and unsure about the future.  But she unstintingly gave her time, energy, money, and love, and she changed lives.  You can Google Gladys Kalibbala–she’s a real live person.  And I think you will be glad when you have read Jessica Yu’s book about her. Sometimes, hopes and dreams do come true.

* Poverty in Uganda is pervasive, both in cities and in rural areas.  Women in Uganda have an average of between 5 and 6 children; half the population is younger than 16 years old. If a child begins school at age 4, s/he will, on average, have 4.3 years of schooling, providing basic literacy but little else. The national poverty rate was 41% before the Covid pandemic and is probably even higher now. An estimated 15,000 “street children” in Uganda have lived without adult support on the streets for as long as they can remember. In addition to those on the street, hundreds more children are abandoned by their families or get lost from them every day, year in and year out. They are sometimes found by strangers and taken to police stations or care centers, from which their families are found. When parents don’t show up, they eventually become street children. Or sometimes someone calls Gladys.

April 14, 2020

  • Lockdown Continues

April 8, 2020

  • Highs and Lows in Lukaya

In this issue:

  • MSA Pioneer Class
  • Rags to Riches: Hamdan Class of ’17
  • Greening the MSA ‘Green Campus’
  • Student Wish List
  • Mandi Bray—Newest Volunteer
  • When Is a Chicken More Than a Chicken? —by Kathryn Hiscock

June 2016

  • Big & Small Miracles Lukaya 2005-2015
  • How Far We Have Come…..Next?
  • News Briefs
  • Visitors to Tree of Life Ministries
  • RPU’s Fiscal Year 2015 Overview