Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Helen's Story

Helen is our housekeeper. She is short and has an easy smile. She is soft-spoken and a bit shy. Her black hair is always neatly combed into a tiny ponytail, she has shiny brown skin and she is exactly my age. Our lives touch one another’s by coincidence, but I think we are both learning something from each other.

Helen works hard scrubbing the floors and washing the dishes and ironing the sheets. She also wants to learn how to bake and cook, so she and I have been making little cakes and salads and stews and rolls. We go to the market together and fill the cart with vegetables and fruit and butter and brown sugar. I showed her how to measure out the flour, sugar and baking soda with cups and tablespoons. She laughed and said that in Africa when you need a cup of something, you just fill up a mug and dump it in. “White people are very clever.” she said, and cracked an egg on the edge of the bowl and mixed it all together.

As we stand there in Linda’s big spacious kitchen, measuring and mixing while the oven warms up, she tells me her story, slowly by slowly, as they say in East Africa. She comes from Gulu in Northern Uganda, where war has been raging for the last twenty years. When she was twelve years old, the Lord’s Resistance Army came to the one room schoolhouse where she studied, and they waved their guns around, screaming, and forced everyone out into the bush. They walked out into the bush, crying and praying not to die.

After a few days, Helen learned that some older boys were planning an escape. A month later they found a moment to sneak away from their captors under the cover of the stars. They walked through the wilderness day after day, sleeping under the sun and moving only at night to avoid being caught. They were almost to Sudan. It took them a month to walk south, back to Gulu.

When she returned home, she was sent to live with her Uncle and his family in Kampala. She could attend school there. When she arrived, she learned that her Uncle’s wife was pregnant. If she wanted to stay with them, she would have to earn her keep by raising the baby. She could go back to school after the child was grown. After a year, she learned that the wife was pregnant again, and that she would have to look after this child as well. That happened three more times. Years went by, but Helen never got her chance to go back to school. Eventually, she found work at the apartment complex, cleaning rooms and cooking for the landlady and guards.

Then one night, she dreamt about a tall woman with curly red hair. And soon after that, she met Linda. Now, she lives in the house behind Linda’s. On Saturday, we went and enrolled her in an adult education course that will pick up where she left off on that horrible day, long ago in the one room schoolhouse. We went and paid the school fees, and filled out a form and got a list of books to buy. We all sat in little wooden chairs outside the classrooms with the enrollment officer. Linda asked Helen “What do you think? Are you ready to do this?” She smiled a shy smile and said “Let me just try.”

No comments:

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...